Mirror decorated with figures in a landscape

Period: Goryeo dynasty (918–1392)

Culture: Korea

Medium: Bronze

Dimensions: Diam. 7 in. (17.8 cm)

Classification: Mirrors

Credit Line: Fletcher Fund, 1925

Accession Number: 25.219.4


Bronze technology was introduced into the Korean peninsula in about the tenth century B.C., most likely from the northern regions of the mainland. Among the most frequently found bronze artifacts excavated from Bronze Age sites in Korea are mirrors, the oldest of which date to the sixth to fourth century B.C. The early examples are decorated on the back (or nonreflective surface) with geometric patterns and are believed to have been employed in shamanistic rituals. The use and production of bronze mirrors were transmitted to Japan from Korea.

By the Koryō dynasty, mirrors became an item of daily use among the upper class. The geometric designs of ancient times were abandoned in favor of such decorative motifs as floral and plant scrolls, auspicious birds (crane and phoenix), dragon and clouds, and narrative themes in landscape settings, as evidenced by the present mirror. While there are only a few surviving examples of secular painting from the Koryō period, secondary evidence, such as the decoration of celadon ware and the ornamentation of this mirror, indicates that there was a sophisticated pictorial tradition.

Koryō bronze mirrors are found in tombs as funerary objects for the deceased, in Buddhist pagodas as ritual objects used in ceremonies to quell earth spirits, and as part of the luxurious household furnishings of the wealthy. This example, which has an elegant scalloped edge with pointed lobes, was probably made for the latter setting. It was fashionable to present mirrors of this type as wedding gifts and to place them on elaborately decorated stands.

Bronze mirrors are made of copper, tin, and zinc—all of which are found in abundance in Korea. One side of this mirror (the reverse of that illustrated here) is polished to a high sheen to serve as the reflective surface. The other side, decorated with a narrative scene in a garden setting, has a knob in the center through which a cord could be looped to suspend the mirror. The scene depicts a figure, identified by his hat as a government official, crossing a bridge. On the opposite side of the bridge, a monk (with shaven head and carrying a staff) points the way. In the background beyond the bridge is a tree, probably a cypress, bearing distinctive clumps of leaves. On the right is a palace gate, in front of which is a seated figure flanked by two attendants. Another figure emerges from the half-opened gate.

Variations of this narrative scene are found on other mirrors made in China and Korea. The story depicted might be that of the legendary visit to the moon by the Tang dynasty (618–907) emperor Xuanzong (r. 712–56). According to this story, a bridge to the moon was created when two magicians who were entertaining the emperor threw a stick into the air. After the three men crossed to the moon, the moon princess came out of her palace to greet the emperor and ordered her servants to sing and dance for him.